Friday, 27 May 2011

Meatloaf - more interesting & versatile than I thought

If you think of meatloaf as basically a gussied-up square burger cooked in the oven you really can't go wrong.  My mum used to make her version when I was little and I loved it so thought I'd try giving I a bash myself.  True to form I made it up and threw it all together before it occurred to me to look on the brilliant BBC GoodFood website to see what should be in it, but it worked out just fine. I started by making a basic burger mix, as always adding more seasoning and herbage than it feels like you should:

1 kg lean minced beef and / or pork, 2 finely chopped medium onions, squished or very finely chopped garlic (about 5 cloves in my case), salt & pepper, mixed herbs – I used sage, oregano & thyme, 2 tsps of English mustard (I'm guessing horseradish would be wonderful here), 1 small chilli, 2 eggs, good quality streaky bacon

NB: a quick thought about the herbs: as a rule I always try to use anything & everything as fresh as it can be but herbs are often the exception.  I always have a good stock of dried herbs (dried myself from fresh herbs either grown or bought) as the flavour strengthens as they dry.  Whilst fresh are still best in many things I cook, I do prefer dried in burgers and therefore meatloaf.

Combine all the ingredients except the bacon in a big bowl and cover with cling film.  Leave out of the fridge for the flavours to get stuck in for at least an hour, though I left mine for about three hours. Line a non-stick loaf tin (if yours isn't non-stick, give it a light layer of butter or oil) with the strips of streaky bacon, taking care to overlap them generously so that they completely cover the meat when it is turned out and leaving enough hanging over the edge to cover the top of the meat.  Press your 'burger' mix firmly into the bacon-lined tin until it is almost overflowing and cover with the overhanging bacon.  Fill a wide & deep roasting dish about 2/3rds full of water and stand the loaf tin in it (meat side up) and cook on about 170C / gas 4-5 for around an hour until the top is browned & glistening.  Leave it to stand for about 10 mins to cool, then turn out and slice.

I served mine hot with really rich onion gravy (recipe below) but I'd imagine a dollop of ketchup in a bun would be nice, as would a big smear of mustard.  The leftovers (and there were a lot) were brilliant cold with salad and pickled chillis, though I would have loved some cornichons even more.  We even had enough to slice up and add to an already meat-heavy BBQ the day after that!

Gravy: thinly slice a medium onion and sweat (horrible expression) gently in butter or olive oil. When they are soft, sprinkle a couple of teaspoons of soft brown sugar over them and let them bubble gently to caramelise.  Add some super-rich beef stock (I used 2 Knorr stock pot extra strong but actually Bovril would have been fine and homemade even better), the juices from the loaf tin and about half a bottle of red wine and simmer until thick & glossy.

A fragrant Chinese marinade & its many uses (yes, I know - more noodle soup!)

I’ve been using a combination of any or all of these ingredients as a marinade for many years, and often use them as a base for a beautiful fragrant broth.  To my mind, this marinade works best with pork belly, whether slow roasted as in the recipe below or cooked very fast & hot on a BBQ for a crunchy, sticky crust.  It works beautifully too with chicken, salmon, prawns, tofu or anything robust enough to carry the strong flavours.  

Wherever possible, use whole spices and grind or bash them yourself for optimum flavour .  Substituting one or two here & there with the powdered versions is absolutely fine too.  It is such a complex combination of flavours and textures that quantities of each ingredient are entirely subject to mood & particular taste – if you know you don’t like cloves for example just leave them out. If you are chilly & need something punchy and warming, ramp up the Szechuan pepper, cloves and chilli or for something lighter and subtler, dial them down and add more star anise.

Combine as many and as much as you like of: ground cloves, ground Szechuan pepper, chopped ginger, chopped garlic, ground cinnamon, ground star anise, chopped red chilli, tamarind paste, good strong soy sauce, nam pla, soft brown sugar (palm sugar is the ideal but can be hard to find) and a splash of sesame oil.  Rub this sticky mess all over whatever you choose to marinate and leave for at least one hour but ideally three or more. 

For an amazing broth, marinate a piece of belly pork, scored gently on the meat side, for a few hours.  Put in an oven-proof pan and cover with about a litre of water and the goo leftover from the marinade and bring to the boil.  Transfer the pan to the oven and roast it uncovered, long & slow for around 3-4 hours. Add water as & when required to maintain the broth and stop it burning.  There’s no reason at all not to do this in a slow cooker and  forget about it as you go about your day but you will need then to crisp the crackling either under the grill or in a very hot oven before serving.  To serve as a soup, layer noodles, greens, mushrooms (or anything you fancy) and the shredded pork (it should just fall apart by now) in a deep bowl and ladle the liquid (be sure to taste before you do this so you can add water to lighten or reduce to strengthen) over the lot. Scatter the crunched up crackling and some finely chopped spring onions over the top and serve at once.

Marinated tofu in very light broth

Marinated, slow roast belly pork in spicy, heady soup

Monday, 18 April 2011

Roast lamb

Quality lamb can be pretty pricey but for a special occasion I do like to splash out on the good stuff.  For Best Beloved's birthday this year our lovely friend Faby was coming for the evening so we decided to go all out & get a really good leg of lamb for the occasion (from the very jolly and helpful Welsh butcher at the farmer’s market).  Whilst it set us back £26, it was well worth the money and ended up feeding us for 3 meals as well as giving a nice stock.   

I like to poke deep holes all over the meat & insert a sliver of garlic & a sprig of rosemary into each one.  We often also pop in a little piece of anchovy to very good effect, it adds a really savoury note to the whole affair without remotely tasting fishy.  I put the lamb into my beloved enamelled roaster and pour over a bottle of red wine.  I add a little lamb stock to the wine or if I don’t have any maybe a splash of soy sauce or a sprinkle of salt.  Over the lamb goes a big handful of bashed up pink peppercorns (a pestle & mortar is by far the best way to deal with the slightly sticky pink pepper as it tends to gum up a normal pepper grinder) and ground black pepper. Into the wine around the meat I put 5-6 whole garlic cloves.  If you are looking to have pink lamb & therefore cooking for less time, I’d poke a little hole in each of the garlic cloves to allow them to cook & melt into the gravy.  If cooking for longer there’s no need as this will just happen by itself.  I also add a couple of desert spoons of redcurrant or cranberry jelly.  This adds a slight sweetness and a whole new layer of flavour such as you get from adding chocolate to a chilli con carne.

When it comes to cooking lamb, length of cooking time and temperature really comes down to personal preference.  To my taste chops and steaks get cooked very hot & fast to ensure a lovely pink interior whereas shanks, leg or shoulder on the bone I like to cook long and slow so the meat just falls off the bone when cooked.  Half way through the cooking I take the lamb out of the oven & poke a chopstick into the end of the bone to get all the lovely marrowbone out and add it to the gravy along with a cup of water if the liquid is running low.  The gravy can be finshed off whilst the meat is sitting to rest. To make the gravy I put the roaster onto the hob and mash the now soft & succulent garlic cloves into the liquid, seaon as needed and either reduce or add water depending on the strength of the flavour.  Once strained, you are left with a gorgeous dark red meaty savoury / sweet liquid in which to douse your entire plate.  If you prefer a thicker gravy, make a little roux of butter and flour and add slowly to the gravy at this stage and stir in very thoroughly.  In the summer I would serve this with a salad and some nice crunchy green beans.  In the still chilly spring I serve with roast potatoes (in goose fat – on a special occasion all fat considerations go out the window) and roasted root vegetables like carrots, beetroot and parsnips, just tossed in olive oil & a little sea salt. After a feast like that, I generally serve fruit salad to cut through the richness of the meat and end on a lighter note.

Maybe not dainty but so delicious!

Easy clams for a light lunch

On Sundays we tend to go to our farmer’s market at Ally Pally to stock up on fruit, veg and juice from the biodynamic Perry Court stall, amazing sausages from the Giggly Pig and whatever else we fancy for the next few days.  There’s a wonderful salt marsh lamb lady as well as a brilliant fishmonger and plenty of cheese, game, cakes & bread as well as other weird & wonderful stalls of pottery, hats, jewellery & other vital items, but mostly it's really good, realtively local produce.  Last Sunday we got a couple of handfuls of lovely fresh clams & as I’ve never cooked them before I decided to keep it very simple. 

I sliced up a couple of garlic cloves and a red Birds Eye chilli & put them in a large pan with a little olive oil.  The clams went straight in then with a small glass of white wine & some black pepper (no salt, the natural flavour of the sea from the clams should be enough), covered with the lid and let them steam for a couple of minutes.  When they were all open I added a huge handful of finely chopped flat leaf parsley and served it straight away.  They were delicious!  As this was lunch, I had them with just a slice or two of crusty bread (fig and fennel sour dough, also from the market) but for a more filling dinner I would toss the clams and their sauce with some spaghetti, well lubricated with extra virgin olive oil, for a simple Spaghetti alle vongole.

Buon appettito!

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Noodle soup

As some people have requested, here are some ideas for the noodle soup I keep banging on about on facebook:

Noodle soup can be light, fragrant and invigoratingly spicy; it can be deep, warming and soothing - in fact it can be absolutely anything you want it to be. Start with any fairly light stock (veg, chicken, fish), ideally homemade.  If you don’t have any stock, make the whole thing from a miso base, but make sure you use paste rather than the powdered stuff.  I often do that in any case because it just tastes so good, but it is less authentic (if you care about such things) and is less pretty. 

Into your soup base sling some finely sliced Kafir lime leaves, a good handful.  If you have the dried ones, just crumble them in.  If you're going for invigorating, add a red chilli or two (I use one to one & a half birds eye chillies WITH seeds) depending on how lip-tingling you like it.  Sploosh in a few glugs of Nam Pla (Thai fish sauce), some lemongrass if you happen to have some, ditto galangal.  I generally put in the juice of a lime or two as I often like it really sour. Leave that to steep for half an hour or so to let the flavours get really exciting.

That’s it really.  After that, put in whatever you fancy.  At the moment we particularly like the combination of noodles (glass / rice noodles look nicest and are beautifully light), king prawns, thickly sliced chestnut mushrooms & pak choi.  If you are adding Chinese greens (pak choi or bok choi), chop tem roughly and add them at the very last second & serve straight away as they will do all necessary cooking between kitchen & table - that way they retain a little crunch.  We sometimes add sliced chicken and thinly sliced char-grilled steak works really well too.  We've recently made it with Chinese spiced belly pork shredded into it with excellent results! Make it up & add whatever you happen to have around. A little splash of toasted sesame oil just before serving adds warmth & depth if you fancy it.

Chargrilled chicken in a soothing miso base

Prawn & chesnut mushroom in a spicy sour chicken stock and miso base

Chinese spiced shredded pork in a sweet, light fragrant broth

A new venture...

Hello & welcome.  A brief explanation of what I'm doing here & why: I love food, there's no two ways about it. Given that I also love to talk about food and I often get asked for my recipes, it seems like a good idea to write them down as and when they happen & put them all in one place.

My love of cooking & eating goes back as long as I can remember.  Watching my dad & later helping him in the kitchen when I was a child sparked my first bursts of inspiration & excitement.  He made (and still makes) the most wonderful, generous and happy food - melting slow roasted pork belly, cassoulet, amazing roast chicken and just the best bacon & eggs in the world.  He also gave me my first taste of Parma ham among other things for which I will be eternally grateful! My dad taught me to love food and inspired my belief that food is about sharing, nurturing, enjoying and indulging. 

My happiest days now are spent pottering around our kitchen with my other half (henceforth referred to as Best Beloved) fending off the scrounging cats and putting meals together or mooching around the farmer's market & local shops looking for nice things with which to potter about & put meals together.  We're lucky enough to live in an area with plenty of excellent independent shops selling great local produce and we make the most of them at every possible opportunity.

We are both enthusiastic carnivores but have made the decision that all the meat we eat must be free range and ideally organic (biodynamic best of all).  As this is fairly challenging when out & about or eating on the hoof (sorry, awful pun), we often find ourselves going veggie these days and are very much enjoying the discovery that vegetarian food can be just as stimulating and exciting as meat-eating. 

So, though my presentation skills leave a lot to be desired and recipes in my world are for reading rather than following, people do seem to enjoy what I put in front of them and often come back for seconds, thirds and sometimes forths so I hope that by sharing the recipes (guidelines really), I can share the fun & enjoyment!

Bon appetit...